Is Harry Potter dumbed down for an American audience?

July 26th, 2007

By Josh Eiserike

Is Harry Potter dumbed down for an American audience?

That’s was my first thought when I got my copy of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” the final installment of J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard epic.

I got my book in Montreal this past weekend, written as Rowling intended, in the Queen’s English.

Some of the changes are simple — “colour” and “centre” become “color” and “center.” Titles like Mr. or Mrs. don’t have a period — it’s Mr and Mrs Weasley. Quotes get one mark, not the familiar double marks.

For a moment, I thought the title to Chapter 6, “The Ghoul in Pyjamas,” was about a magical artifact, not, in fact, a ghoul wearing pajamas.

But it’s more than just different spellings for words. Some Potter Internet fansites such as beyondhogwarts.com have documented differences in the American and British texts of previous books — to the extent that expository sentences were omitted in the British version.

And, as any fan can tell you, the first book, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” was titled “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” for an American audience —presumably we’d think it was about Plato’s kidneys.

But my initial reaction about the book being “dumbed down” was due to the presentation.
The cover, the design, the fonts — just about everything — is different.

The Brits get two covers — a children’s one, featuring Harry, Ron and Hermione breaking into — well, I’m not going to spoil that. The adult cover has a picture of Slytherin’s locket and a full author photo on the back page. But everything else about the two British printings are identical.

There’s no specialized chapter title font atop each page, with illustrated stars. Other than the cover, there aren’t any illustrations, period. When characters receive special messages or letters, it’s simply done in italics, not the reproduced “handwriting,” from the characters themselves. When Potter reads an article in the Daily Prophet, it’s italics again. In the American version it’s the font and column of an actual newspaper article.

The text appears bigger in the American version, but that might just be an optical illusion due to larger space between the lines. In fact, everything about the American version is bigger — it’s about an inch taller and about 150 pages longer.

The British text has a short summary of the plot on the interior cover. There’s no table of contents. The American book, with the textured dust jacket and Mary GrandPre artwork, opens to read “We now present the seventh and final installment in the epic tale of Harry Potter.”

But… the story is exactly the same. Potter and his friends still have the same adventures. The threat from Lord Voldemort is just as real. It’s not like some other instances in popular culture where we Americans have a happy ending, while the rest of the world gets the real story (“Jakob the Liar,” anyone?).

Part of the reason for the books’ unprecedented success in this country — besides the first generation of interconnected fans hyping it to each other on the Internet and, obviously, Rowling’s imagination and subversive sense of humor — might just be the presentation.

This isn’t dumbing it down. It’s still a bloodbath — read carefully between the lines — there’s an implied rape. Dumbing it down would be a Hollywood ending complete with Voldemort’s redemption and singing Ewoks. This is branding.

American readers have a specific set of expectations when it comes to reading a Potter book — creative use of the space on the page, fonts and a dust jacket to set it apart from everything else on the shelf. Other popular kids’ books have also used a similar branding formula with great success — Lemony Snicket, for example.

The British version is a book. The American version is an experience.

Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072.

2 comments to “Is Harry Potter dumbed down for an American audience?”

  1. Cool, you got to write a column about Harry Potter. I just finished it yesterday, it was good (I read the good old USA edition!)

  2. Yeah, I enjoyed it as well. It was a fun read.